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19 September 2018
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Sounds of Australia - capturing our audio treasures

When management and staff of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) began ruminating on the idea of gathering together a formal inventory of significant pieces of Australia's rich audio history, it didn't take long for the concept to take shape into a national registry of recorded sound, officially known as Sounds of Australia. The result is a public list of recordings in which the contents are as diverse as the people, politics, music and culture they represent across the decades. GABRIELLE BONNEY spoke to the NFSA's Senior Curator MATTHEW DAVIES about the process and the results.

Earlier this year, a foundation list for Sounds of Australia was selected by the NFSA Director Paolo Cherchi Usai and the Recorded Sound team led by Davies. The list spans almost 100 years and includes key audio treasures from the first half of the 20th century, such as Dame Nellie Melba's first commercial recording (1904), the landing of the Australian troops in Egypt (1915), and Peter Dawson's legendary 1931 recording of Along the Road to Gundagai. Whitlam's 'Kerr's cur' speech from the steps of Parliament House also sits on the foundation list - a seminal piece of Australian oratory on a day of unprecedented political events. But there are also gems in the registry that most Australians would not have heard, such as the earliest known Australian recording, in which a Warrnambool businessman imitates a chook - quite apt given that the humble hen is about as quintessential backyard Aussie as you can get.

The registry was then thrown open to the public to nominate the audio treasures they felt should join Sounds of Australia as the ten 2007 additions. A panel was formed, again spearheaded by Cherchi Usai and Davies, to determine the next selection. It consisted of such audio heavyweights as John Spence of ABC Radio Archives; musicians Les Gock and Kavisha Mazzella; broadcaster Angela Catterns; Kevin Bradley from the National Library of Australia; Grace Koch from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies; Belinda Webster of Tall Poppies Records; and Stuart Waters of the Australian Independent Record Labels Association.

But how did the selection panel approach the task of determining what constitutes Australia's 'identity' when it comes to sound? Davies explains: "Both Australian identity and Australian recorded sound heritage are characterised by diversity, so rather than trying to define what that identity is we tried to ensure that the make up of our panel would bring a range of different views to the table. Even between the different institutions represented on the panel there was a diversity of views about what aspects of sound heritage best represented the Australian identity, and when you add the industry and creative people into the mix I think we had a good spread of views on this matter."

Davies says that the panel members all understood the need to balance the list in terms of genre and period, so rather than arguing for or against the inclusion of one particular item they were looking at various scenarios. "We needed a blend of radio, spoken word and music, and also a spread from the late 19th century up to the 1980s," he said, "so if, for example, we had a choice between a piece of music or a historic speech from one era, then depending on which of those we selected that would influence another part of our selection. The group looked at the whole package."

From the call to the public, a lively collection of nominations flowed in. "We did have vigorous discussion when we came to choosing the final recommendations," says Davies. The resulting Top Ten is a bumper list: from 60s and 70s pop and punk hits (The Easybeats' Friday On My Mind and The Saints (I'm) Stranded/ No Time) to the familiar fanfare that still heralds in the ABC radio news, and from the iconic Dad and Dave from Snake Gully to the little-known Fanny Cochrane Smith's 1899 recordings of Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.

But what can capturing choices about seminal recordings now (that highlight aspects of our politics, pop culture, Indigenous culture and song, warfare and more) provide for future generations? "The choices we make now say as much about present times as they do about the past," says Davies. "Scholars in the future may be quite interested to know what we in the early 21st century thought was significant enough to include on a national registry of sound. The prominence of Indigenous sound recordings within the registry is just one example of this."

The significance of this idea was reinforced by the fact that in the same week that The Warumpi Band's Jailanguru Pakarnu (1983) was announced as part of the 2007 list, the band's charismatic lead singer was buried back in his homeland of Elcho Island in the Northern Territory. His band's legacy, the first rock song to be released in Indigenous language, lives on now as part of the National Registry of Recorded Sound.

The endurance of Sounds of Australia beyond being a reference tool is an important aspect of a project such as this. The NFSA is looking into producing CDs of the listed recordings as a resource for schools and also for promoting Australian culture. They'll continue to build the backgrounder information resources on the NFSA website and link this to other resources such as Wikipedia - so that anyone looking for information about Australia's sound heritage will be able to make use of the registry.

Davies sums up: "Imagine in 100 years time, when the Sounds of Australia registry will have grown to 1,000 entries … all the material from the 20th century and earlier will still be accessible, and we'll have added much more. We could easily have a collection of over a million sound recordings by then. What a fabulous resource."

Listen to the recordings from the foundation and 2007 lists on the NFSA website. Nomination forms for the 2008 registry are also available there.

The Easybeats, whose Friday On My Mind (1966) is part of Sounds of Australia.

Peter Sculthorpe AO OBE, co-patron of Sounds of Australia, with Marianne and Jill Anthill-Rose (granddaughter and daughter of John Antill whose Corroboree is one of the 2007 additions to Sounds of Australia.)

Manager of the NFSA's Recorded Sound Branch, Vincent Plush, with Barbara Blackman at the Sounds of Australia 2007 announcement.

Fanny Cochrane Smith recording with Dr Harold Watson (1899). Photo courtesy Museum of Tasmania.